On a crisp February morning in 2018, I flew into Islamabad; a few hours later, I joined a panel of scholars at the Lok Virsa to discuss the novels of two eminent women writers: Fahmida Riaz and Nisar Aziz Butt. The latter was the subject of Karavan-i-Jamal-o-Khayal [Caravan of Beauty and Thought], a recently launched collection of critical essays on her work and biographical articles in both Urdu and English by some of the most eminent writers and critics in Pakistan, including Intizar Husain, Asif Farrukhi and Mansha Yaad. A brief selection of excerpts from her fiction was appended. The long piece I had written in the online literary journal Asymptote about Butt’s novels five years earlier was included in the volume, which its editor, Dr Humaira Ishfaq, handed to me on stage. To my astonished pleasure, it contained a long personal inscription to me, from Butt herself.
I had discovered Butt’s novels in the autumn of 2012. Art critic Nada Raza mentioned her to me as a highly erudite novelist from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa who had chosen to write in Urdu: had I read her? I hadn’t. But I immediately located Darya Ke Sang [The Stones of the River], the last of her four novels to be published (in the late 1980s), in my library. I was entranced. Told in the self-reflexive voice of a male narrator, the novel zigzagged back and forth in time to chronicle an ordinary life beset with reckonings and tragedies.
Though I don’t advocate comparing Urdu masterworks to Western models, I noticed the relationship of Butt’s style to the post-existentialist French fiction of the ’50s and ’60s. But the author had interwoven elements of regional and national culture so deftly into the web of her narrative that it was impossible to unravel the strands of East or West. It was simply one of the most original Urdu novels I’d read, in many ways a precursor to the wave of Anglophone fiction that emerged two decades later in the 21st century.
I found another of her novels, Karavan-i-Wajood [Procession of Existence], at SOAS. Though recognisably the work of the same hand and, like Darya, set in both Eastern and Western landscapes, it was different in tone and texture: a study of the intersecting lives and contrasting characters of two intellectual women, Samar and Sara. I hadn’t read anything remotely like it in Urdu since Ismat Chughtai’s Terrhi Lakeer [The Crooked Line]. If it resembled any work of fiction I recalled, it was the novels of Simone de Beauvoir; again, a French connection. But Butt’s evocation of post-independence Pakistan, its social mores and cultural shifts, placed it in a unique category. (Much of its action unfolded in the streets, houses and libraries of the Karachi I knew as a child in the ’60s.) Butt juxtaposes long passages of interior monologue and abstract thought with sensuous, gritty descriptions and a tough realism, unlike any Urdu novelist of either gender I’d ever read.
I read her novels in reverse order by coincidence: next came her acknowledged magnum opus, Nae Chiraghe Nae Gule [No Lamp, No Flower], an epic, mutltivocal reconstruction of the years from 1921 until the creation of Pakistan which, on publication, had been compared to Qurratulain Hyder’s Aag Ka Darya [River of Fire] and Abdullah Hussein’s Udaas Naslein [The Weary Generations]. (Butt herself spoke of the influence of Leo Tolstoy, but her fragmented, kaleidoscopic and, at times, cinematic technique is very much of the 20th century.) Her subject, she wrote in an Urdu essay, was the struggle between tradition and modernity, and this linked all her novels. Yet this modernist classic — a definitive statement of her worldview — hadn’t been recommended by any of my writer friends in Pakistan, nor by Butt’s friend Hyder (my mentor in Urdu fiction).
Nisar Aziz Butt, who passed away on February 7, was a highly erudite and multi-faceted writer in whose mind time present and time past co-existed
At the annual Urdu Conference in Karachi that December, I was quick to point out this neglect to Intizar Hussain, Kishwar Naheed and Asif Farrukhi — all of whom had perspectives on Butt’s work. Over and over, I’d find her early novels discussed and her later work ignored. Farrukhi, though, handed me a copy of her autobiography Gaye Dinon Ka Suraagh [In Search of Days Gone By], which presented in intricate detail her own rather unusual life as a Pashtun woman who’d chosen the path of education and become a teacher of mathematics; then, after marrying outside her ethnic group, she’d lived in Karachi and Lahore and written four novels over a long span of nearly as many decades — her long silences in between were one possible reason for a period of obscurity.
Nagri Nagri Phira Musafir [The Traveller Wandered from Land to Land], published in 1955 (the year I was born), was recalled with affection by many. Inspired in part by Butt’s own struggle with tuberculosis, the novel was compared by many to Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, which she claimed not to have read at the time, citing instead Chughtai’s Terrhi Lakeer and Hyder’s Mere Bhi Sanamkhane [My Temples, Too] as inspirations and thereby placing herself quite deliberately in the tradition of the Urdu feminist bilgdungsroman. (Renowned translator Daisy Rockwell is currently working on an English version.) Butt chose Urdu as the language of her fiction; she told me she found it more challenging, and richer in texture and nuance, than English.
I discovered that year that her period of obscurity was coming to an end. Prelude, a collection of the farsighted and occasionally visionary English articles Butt had written over many years for Dawn, on various aspects of literature, culture and politics, had been published by Sang-e-Meel in 2009. The same year, Sang-e-Meel had also issued her novels in one volume, which I acquired. I wrote and published my study of Butt’s work in early 2013; that year, Qurrutulain Hyder Ki Yaad Mein [In Memory of Qurratulain Hyder], her collection of essays, recollections and ‘lost’ short stories — her first work in many years — brought her attention from a new generation of readers and scholars who addressed her writings from fresh angles, including feminist and the postcolonial. In May 2016, a host of dignitaries, including her younger brother Sartaj Aziz, Kishwar Naheed and Masood Ashar gathered to declare Butt a living legend under the auspices of the Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI).
That day in Islamabad in 2018, I told Dr Humaira Ishfaq that I planned to be in Lahore for a few days to attend the Lahore Literary Festival (LLF) and hoped to meet Butt there. After a detour to Faisalabad, I reached the LLF where, on the final day of the festival. Butt’s niece Poonam Ayub told me her aunt was in Islamabad, but would be back later in the day, had heard that I was in Lahore, and wanted to meet me! Three years earlier I’d received an unexpected call from Butt; she announced at the outset that she would be asking most of the questions (and did). So when we met that February evening, we had a sense of knowing each other not only through our work — she’d read and liked some of mine — but also through that telephone conversation.
That summer I heard she had been unwell and had moved to Islamabad to stay with her son. I decided to stop over on my way to Karachi to meet her again, in the company of her niece and her son. Along with her formidable intelligence and erudition, her skill as a raconteur and her immense warmth, she was also very hospitable. Our conversations ranged over a variety of subjects, from travel to the state of the world and, of course, books. Over and over she stated that she wouldn’t appear in public to receive any honours.
She asked me to come back as soon as I could; I visited her again in September, for lunch this time. She was frailer, and said she soon tired of talking, but all the intelligence and warmth were still in abundance.
In March 2019 I had an accident that stopped me from travelling for much of the year; I rushed in and out of Karachi when I recovered, and when I spent a day in Lahore in December, I failed to reach her. I was planning to visit her later this month when, on Friday morning, I heard she had left us at daybreak.
Speaking to me of her life in Lahore that first time we met, she told me how comfortable she was in that city, and that many of her loved ones lay at rest in a nearby graveyard; time present and time past co-existed in her mind, and when her hour came she would make the transition from this world to the next with ease. Immersed today in her writings and her multi-faceted world view, I feel that as long as we continue to love words, her charismatic and visionary texts will live on.
The writer is a London-based author of novels and short stories
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, February 16th, 2020